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A rooming house policy that puts tenants first

October 25, 2016

On October 26th, Toronto’s City Planning and Municipal Licensing & Standards Divisions will bring their proposed rooming house[1] strategy to Toronto’s Executive Committee.

It’s a thoughtfully-written document, but a cautious one, recommending another full year of consultations – this after a comprehensive research and consultation program that began in 2014 and entailed 14 neighbourhood consultations, 7 tenant focus groups, meetings with post-secondary institutions, agencies and rooming house operators, and an online survey – simply to introduce a pilot project.

It is hard to predict the outcome of the consultations. But one thing I do know. If the City of Toronto hopes to make good on its 2010-2020 Affordable Housing Action Plan or its Poverty Reduction Strategy, its rooming house policy must put tenants first.

What would a “tenants first” rooming house policy look like?

It would recognize rooming house tenants have the same rights as homeowners. There is still a widespread sentiment that rooming houses are not quite respectable, and their tenants should not be on an equal footing with homeowners.

Toronto’s Housing Charter says otherwise: “All residents, regardless of whether they rent or own a home, or are homeless, have an equal stake and voice in Toronto’s future.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission backs up these inspiring words with a warning: any planning policies or practices that disproportionately affect Code-protected groups — the very people who live in rooming houses — may be seen to violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.[2]

In their proposed strategy, City staff say the City’s existing property maintenance by-laws are sufficient to deal with most complaints against rooming houses. So why are they treating rooming house tenants as a special class of neighbour? Instead of inviting the public to complain at locally-organized public hearings, or permitting neighbours to recommend the conditions under which a rooming house might be allowed to operate, the City should simply deal with complaints in the same way it treats complaints against a privately-owned home.

And if the City wants to encourage neighbourhood problem-solving? Use  a mediation process where no-one is at risk of losing their businesses or their homes.

It would put affordability first. Some tenants are attracted to the communal life rooming houses can offer. But most live in a rooming house because it is the only home they can afford. For them, any rent increase is bad news; and a big rent increase could mean the difference between staying housed and ending up homeless.

Any tenant-first licensing regime would count the cost of fees, administrative time and particularly, the costs of retrofits and ask, “Will the benefits to tenants truly outweigh the impact of higher rents to cover these costs?” And if not, what might be a more affordable way to protect tenants?

It would help tenants get action on the things they care about. When I hear rooming house tenants complain about their home, they hardly ever talk about its failure to meet the Fire or Building Code. Instead they talk about unfair rent increases or illegal charges, a lack of privacy or people stealing their food, cleanliness, cold, mould, or harassment from the landlord or other tenants.

The City has some authority to deal with these issues. The Landlord and Tenant Board has more. But most tenants don’t know their rights or how to get action.

The City could help by launching an intensive public education campaign channeled through organizations tenants know and trust: student organizations; community agencies; cultural and faith groups; libraries and community centres. The campaign would explain how tenants can lodge complaints to the City. And it would fund housing help centres to work in concert with legal clinics to bring tenant-led cases to the LTB.

Most important, the campaign can assure tenants their complaints will not cause them to lose their homes. Which leads to the next point. . .

It would keep tenants housed. Tenants may look to the City to be their ally against a bad landlord. But the City is not their friend if it shuts down their house altogether.

Any regulatory regime must start with the premise that it will keep all tenants housed. In most cases, this will mean consulting with tenants about the remedies they would like to see, and working with the operator to put these remedies into practice.

Where the City finds a house is simply uninhabitable – and tenants should always be consulted before their home is shut down – then the City must take responsibility for assisting tenants with housing allowances and support to enable them to find a suitable alternative.

It would create more affordable housing of all types. Bad conditions thrive where tenants have nowhere else to go. The solution is to increase the supply of all types of affordable housing, including rooming houses, in every part of the city.

The City staff has suggested incentives that could help to increase the supply of rooming houses. These will help. But the City will get greater value for its budget by removing barriers to new supply.

Take, for example, the City staff’s proposal to enact five “temporary use by-laws” in five suburban districts. But why would rooming house operators in these districts invest in costly upgrades when zoning permissions are temporary, and they have no assurance they can recoup their costs? At the outset, the City should remove the potential Catch 22 — fail to apply for a license and you are shut down, or apply for a license but close anyways if you can’t afford the required upgrades.

The bottom line

The City of Toronto has a financial interest in keeping tenants housed. It has a policy interest in promoting diverse, mixed-income neighbourhoods. And it has a human rights obligation to ensure its actions do not adversely affect vulnerable people. By putting tenants first, it can achieve all three.

If you agree, tell your Councillor. Executive Committee meets October 26th. Council meets November 8th.

[1] Or multi-tenant houses, as they will be called if the proposal goes forward.

[2] Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy on Human Rights and Rental Housing (2009), Sec. 2.7. Also pertinent: the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s In the Zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning and Room for everyone: Human rights and rental housing licensing . 

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